Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Review: Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue

Once I decided to try to read four books, my plan for this year’s R.I.P. VI Challenge, kindly hosted again by Carl V. of Stainless Steel Droppings, was to slowly increase the peril level throughout the challenge. I started with a vintage mystery, moved to an early 20th century real life ghost story with some mildly perilous moments, and then read a contemporary Japanese ghost story with a really eerie perilous vibe. I was worrying if I’d gotten the order right after that one, but Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue really scared me, so in the end I got the order right.

Melanie, a young, 20th century mother with tuberculosis, sits on an antique chaise-longue to rest. She wakes up in 1864 – long before doctors realized that what she needed most was sunshine and fresh air. She recognizes no one – but they know her. She’s Milly, soon to die of tuberculosis. And they’re waiting for her confession. But she doesn’t have one to give, which contributes to the tension of the book.

So why was a book with no monsters, no ghouls, and no brutally murdered innocents so scary? The horror of Lanski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue comes from Melanie’s growing realization of her abjectly hopeless situation:
But things can’t happen twice, she told herself wearily, closing her eyes, the momentary relaxation over, the racking torture established again, I must always have been Milly and Milly me. It is now that is present reality and the future is yet to come. But if I have to wait for the future, if it is only in time to come that I shall be Melanie again, then that time must come again too when Sister Smith leaves me to sleep on the chaise-longue, and I wake up in the past. I shall never escape – and the eternal prison she imagined for herself consumed her mind, and she fainted or dozed off into a nightmare of chase and pursuit and loss. p. 58-59

This book creeped me out – there’s not one graphic moment, but it’s the kind of book that makes you think. What would it be like if no one believed you? What would it feel like to be without the people you love most when you are ill? What if the person who was supposed to love you most really didn’t? Powerful and horrible themes that pushed my peril-meter higher than I usually like!

Okay – four perilous reads for the R.I.P. VI Challenge – and just in time! Thanks so much, Carl V., for another great autumn of perilous reading. I am already looking forward to next year! This was one of my favorite Persephone Books so far.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Weekend Cooking: Col Cooks Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake

When I asked what I could bring to the Halloween Party, my friend Ann said she’d like a pumpkin cheesecake. This is a marbled version, perfect for cheesecake purists* who want to add a touch of the season to their favorite dessert.

Col's Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake

For the crust:
1 cup gingersnap crumbs
¼ cup walnuts, ground
¼ cup melted butter

Mix all together and press into the bottom of a 7-inch springform pan. Cover the outside of the pan with a large piece of aluminum foil (use the extra-wide kind, so you won’t have to worry about water seeping into the cake through the seams).

For the cheesecake filling:
1 ½ cups sour cream
½ cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons vanilla
16 ounces cream cheese
2 tablespoons melted butter

Have the ingredients at room temperature. Blend the first four ingredients in a blender for one minute. Then add the cream cheese, a bit at a time. When all the cream cheese is incorporated, pour the melted butter through the top of the blender while running to incorporate. Pour all but ¾ cup into the springform pan.

For the pumpkin filling:
¾ cup cheesecake filling (above)
½ cup pumpkin puree
2 tablespoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

Whisk all the ingredients together in a large measuring cup. (It will be a bit thin, but that’s alright.) Now for the fun part – pour the filling onto the cheesecake in a decorative pattern.

Place the springform pan in a lasagna pan. With the pan on the oven rack, pour boiling water into the lasagna pan, until it comes about half way up the side of the cake pan. Bake in a 325 F oven for about 50 minutes. Then turn off the oven, place a wooden spoon between the door and the oven to prop it open, and let the cheesecake remain undisturbed for another hour. Then remove from the oven and let cool completely before you refrigerate (at least 3 hours before cutting).

*And by that I mean lovers of real, New York cheesecake, dense and not overly sweet -- the kind I grew up on!

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Book Review: Taichi Yamada’s Strangers

Taichi Yamada’s Strangers is a moody tale of loss and redemption, set in modern day Tokyo. Hideo is a recently divorced television writer, emotionally cut off from the world since the loss of his free-spirited parents in a motorcycle accident when he was only twelve years old. While wandering around his old neighborhood, he sees a man who looks exactly like his father in a comedy club – and the man doesn’t seem at all surprised when he follows him all the way home, to a woman who looks exactly like his mother. In fact, they seem to have been expecting him.

Are they strangers, or are they his parents? His new girlfriend – the only other person actually living in the noisy apartment building that most owners use as business space – warns him to stay away from them. And his colleague Mamiya appears terrified at the physical change in Hideo. But Hideo doesn’t notice any change at all.

He continues to see his parents, who seem not at all disconcerted to be so much younger than their son. But can they really be the kind people they appear to be?

This ghostly story sent shivers down my spine. And the only reason for the short review is that it would be a shame to give anything away. I loved Yamada’s writing style – the first-person narration is almost journalistic in its austerity, but still richly descriptive. I read fantastic reviews of this book from both The Parrish Lantern and Dolce Bellezza, two bloggers who tend to add to my TBR with their great recommendations, so I wasn’t at all surprised to enjoy the book. But I wasn’t really prepared for how powerfully this story resonated with me. I'd call this highly recommended for fans of Japanese literature and for those who love a good ghost story.

This one definitely turned up the peril-meter for my R.I.P. VI Reading, so thanks to Carl V of Stainless Steel Droppings for hosting. I’m kind of sad that October is coming to an end, but the reviews from this year’s challenge already have me thinking about next year! And this is also my second book for the Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 5 – I’m glad I’ll have some more time to work on that challenge when the semester winds down!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Book Review: Elliot O’Donnell’s Scottish Ghost Stories

One of the most dangerous things about a Kindle is the “immediate gratification” apect of it: you find a review for a book, it looks interesting, and in less than a minute it’s on your device. And the money is out of your bank account. Ouch! Which is why it’s fun to scroll through the free and $0.99 titles for e-book readers – a lot of classics are available that way, and while I’ll admit the typesetting sometimes suffers for the price, it’s way better than having a to borrow the same classic from the library—and deal with the mold and mildew that often plagues old books.

That’s how I came across Elliott O’Donnell’s classic horror volume, Scottish Ghost Stories. Turns out that O’Donnell was a turn-of-the-last-century ghost hunter, and quite a celebrity in his time. He even had a radio show about paranormal phenomenon at one point. The R.I.P. VI Challenge, hosted by Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings, was looming, and I wanted to include something aside from mysteries in my list this year, so I downloaded it on impulse. It wound up being an enjoyable read, but probably not for the reasons that O’Donnell intended.

Scottish Ghost Stories purports to be a collection of true hauntings, either experienced by O’Donnell himself or relayed to him by reliable sources, all taking place in Scotland. The book was written in 1911, and has a real Victorian sensibility, very descriptive and melodramatic:
And soon there stole upon me a sensation to which I had been hitherto an utter stranger – I became afraid. An irrepressible tremor pervaded my frame, my teeth chattered, my blood froze. Obeying an impulse – an impulse I could not resist, I lifted myself up from the pillows, and, peering fearfully into the shadowy glow that lay directly in front of me – listened. Why I listened I do not know, saving that an instinctive spirit prompted me. At first I could hear nothing, and then, from a direction I could not define, there came a noise, low, instinctive, uninterpretative…Dreading to think what it might be, and seized with a wild sentiment of self-preservation, I made frantic endeavours to get out of bed and barricade my door. My limbs, however, refused to move. I was paralysed.Kindle Location 1775 of 1905
It suddenly struck me while reading it that O’Donnell’s book represents the Victorian equivalent of reality TV! Like the producers of shows like “Paranormal State,” O’Donnell’s narrative makes it clear that ghosts can be found in the most unlikely places – and the reader may well be the next victim! There are some great period touches in that regard. For example, in most cases O’Donnell only gives the neighborhood of the occurrences he’s detailing, not the actual addresses of them, presumably to protect the current property owners who may be trying to foist their ghostly tenants on some other unsuspecting homebuyers – quite an interesting touch, I thought. There are also routines associated with the haunting, such as the forcing of the haunted to act against their will, and paralysis of victims that make it impossible to flee the terrifying apparitions they describe later, that recur in the stories.

From the standpoint of the challenge, the book did provide a couple of mildly perilous moments. But the truth is I found it most interesting as an artifact of its time – and a sort of verification that the current fascination with “true crime” and other “reality” genres has historical antecedents. I think lovers of Victorian literature should really consider taking a look at this book, as it represents a very popular genre in its time that we now commonly overlook – non-fiction. But it would also be of interest to those who are interested in the evolution of the horror genre, especially “true horror.” And if you’re kind of wimpy about horror, this is a good introduction – this is definitely not a book of the Stephen King, nightmare inducing kind! I’m certainly glad I happened upon it, and that I finally got to read a ghost story for this year’s R.I.P. VI Challenge. So thanks again to Carl V. for hosting – this is my second R.I.P. Challenge, and I can already see why it’s a highlight of autumn for so many book bloggers!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

TLC Book Tour Review: Susan V. Weiss’ My God, What Have We Done?

How do we deal with the unforeseen consequences of our greatest efforts? What is the opportunity cost of action versus inaction? These are the questions that Susan V. Weiss’ new novel, My God, What Have We Done?, asks the reader to consider throughout the two stories she has surprisingly woven together in this remarkable new novel.

The first story is Pauline and Clifford’s. It’s the story of a modern, young married woman’s loneliness in her marriage. Pauline loves her self-possessed husband Clifford, and her needy children. Still, she can’t quite find happiness. She married a man who was quiet and distant, only to be disappointed by his solitary nature. Pauline is a frustrating character – she seems to desire movement and change when none is really necessary. Instead of enjoying the different phases of her life, she wishes them away for some other future that isn’t well defined, except for the fact that it isn’t the one she is currently building. Still, her struggles are both commonplace and touching:

But as much as a mother may love her child, the unvarying replay of challenges that need to be mastered during the process of growth and the repetitive schedule can become tiresome. While Jasper worked with all his might to become a toddler, I escaped the monotony of our days together by reading, and during these lapses of vigilance, my son sometimes would fall and cry, get frustrated and cry, miss my attention and cry. (page 131)

What young mother hasn’t felt that way? And yet Pauline seems to think that if she isn’t actively engaged at every moment, something is lost.

The second story is that of Pauline’s historical “crush,” J. Robert “Oppie” Oppenheimer, and his wife Kitty, as Oppenheimer feverishly tried to finish the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, during the final days of the Second World War. Kitty and her young son Peter have been dragged to the middle of the desert by her husband, where isolation and loneliness lead her to alcohol. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but it was this remote story that touched me the most. Kitty’s plight seemed out of her hands, compared with Pauline’s. The circumstances of her husband’s life separated him from almost everyone – even her, the person who had been his closest confidante. She knew enough about her husband’s work to know that she might be waiting for not the end of some annoying childhood phase, but the end of the world as she knew it, which served to make her struggles far more heartbreaking to me, despite the fact that her behavior was in many ways shocking.

Weiss dares the reader to compare the relative ease of our day-to-day existence with the hardships faced by the scientists working at Los Alamos. Their common purpose is extraordinary, although their diligent activity ultimately brings about the worst kind of destruction. How do we judge the result?

I enjoyed this book immensely, although I admit I found it a bit uneven. Both stories were very compelling, but Weiss’ philosophical musings on the meaning of the atomic bomb struck me as too direct – almost like some kind of omniscient Greek chorus. This would be a fabulous book for a book club – I can imagine people reacting to this book completely differently, depending on their age and life experience. I would recommend this book to both lovers of contemporary literature and historical fiction, as well as those who enjoy literature about the Second World War. There is something here for all of those groups.

I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. I hope you’ll visit these other stops on the tour:

Monday, October 10th: Steph and Tony Investigate
Tuesday, October 11th: Col Reads
Wednesday, October 12th: Regular Rumination
Wednesday, October 12th: The Well-Read Wife